When is a food bank referral not a food bank referral? When it’s from the DWP

Food & livelihoods, Food security, In the news, Inequality, Poverty in the UK

A month ago Oxfam and Church Action on Poverty highlighted the stark increase in food poverty in the UK: at least half a million people now rely on emergency food support from foodbanks around the country. Yesterday, we were pleased to see this spark fierce debate in the House of Lords. But the reaction from the Work and Pensions Minister was both disappointing, and utterly
baffling.

Lord David Freud, the Work and Pensions Minister, was asked what criteria job centres around the country used to refer people to foodbanks, and whether his Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) would monitor these referrals in the future. When we launched our food poverty report a month ago, this is what we had in mind. 

We called on the government to launch an inquiry to find out how many people are referred to foodbanks because of benefits issues.

“There comes a point where you need to not just pull people out of the river; you need to go upstream and find out who is pushing them in.”

Lord Freud replied that, though job centres are free to refer claimants to any local services, “food banks are absolutely not part of our welfare system” and so the DWP has no obligation to monitor referrals to them. He added that as more foodbanks open, more people will inevitably go where they can receive food for free. In his words, “there is an almost infinite demand for a free good”.

No one turns up at foodbanks because there is free food

There are many things wrong with his answer, and the first one is that, from our own experience, we know people are not turning up at foodbanks for the chance of a free shopping spree. They are driven there in sheer desperation. We also know that it is now increasingly common for branches of Job Centre Plus to make referrals to foodbanks. Oxfam works with a Trussell Trust foodbank in Tower Hamlets (pictured) where a significant chunk of users are sent by the local job centre.

It would be foolish to not look into why this is happening, so shouldn’t the DWP monitor, record and investigate why it is that so many people are presenting in crisis, unable to feed their families? 

As Jack, a mum and blogger who once relied on foodbanks, told parliament last month, “There comes a point where you need to not just pull people out of the river; you need to go upstream and find out who is pushing them in.”

Many of the Peers present in this House of Lords debate had visited food banks themselves, and raised similar concerns. For them, just like for us, it was clear that nobody really wants to use food banks, but do so simply as they have no other choice. Peers also questioned the support offered by crisis loans and the frequent delays in benefit payments. Delays like these can mean people are left with no money at all, so no wonder they have to turn to foodbanks.

We need to look at what is driving people into crisis

After yesterday’s debate, we are left with a serious concern: there is a gaping chasm between how politicians see the system working, and how it is experienced by people in the communities where Oxfam works.

Food poverty will never be solved without a long hard look at the factors driving people into crisis in the first place.

Just last week in the Chancellor’s Comprehensive Spending Review, we were told that people now have to be out of work for seven days before they can make a benefit claim.

Yet Universal Credit, when rolled out, will be one single monthly payment. So even if the system works perfectly, it is hard to see how the situation will be avoided where some people will be without benefits for at least five weeks.

We need a social security system that truly protects people, rather than forcing them into the direst of choices. We need a labour market with jobs that pay enough to live on. And we need policies that reflect the realities of people’s lives.

Food poverty will never be solved without a long hard look at the factors which are driving people into crisis in the first place. Acknowledging the scale of food bank referrals coming from the DWP is the perfect starting point.

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Author: Katherine Trebeck
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.